The young CEO of a just funded startup and a board member met with a clutch of potential customers over a couple of days. They pitched the company, listened to what these customers had to say and, in short, received a lot of feedback on monetization of their offerings. On the way back from the meetings, they talked about implementing changes in the company and in the product that would facilitate monetization. However, the talk didn’t translate into action within the company. The young CEO had remained focused on making the product more robust and with more features and capabilities.
Another CEO who was on a rare visit to another city for an investor meeting when asked how he planned on spending his time before and after the investor meeting, said he didn’t really have anything else scheduled except for meeting some potential technical hires later that evening. There was no time scheduled for meeting potential customers and partners.
These are but two examples of how very many startup CEOs, particularly inIndia, are more comfortable with activities inside the company than with the outside. Unfortunately, 70%+ of any company’s success (and costs) depends on how it’s offerings are marketed, how quickly is sales traction gained, how it engages with customers, how a partner ecosystem is developed and the like. The product offering itself and the rest of the company contribute to around 30% of the success and cost. Thus product management (from customer requirements to road map to pricing and packaging) to product marketing (from positioning to channels to launch to managing customers) to branding to sales are crucial in creating the conditions for a company’s success. Iterations in the company’s offerings take place based on feedback, insights that take place based on dialogue with customers and the market. Product marketing, branding and sales are activities that require an enormous amount of direct and constant customer engagement while product management essentially works with the development and delivery teams on converting insights and market understanding into a better product offering.
A CEO who is comfortable with and therefore remains focused only on attempting to improve the product offering but isn’t keen on sales or customer interactions isn’t a CEO who can take a company forward. Attempting to improve a product without a constant iterative process of engagement with customers can be very dangerous as well. Getting out of one’s comfort zone and engaging with the market is a crucial attribute for a CEO. It has to be consciously cultivated and pursued and the CEO has to learn to sell his or her vision of the company, learn to receive feedback, filter the feedback, make the required changes in the path of the company, execute the plan and then start the process of taking feedback all over again. The reason for being in business for any business is business and business only occurs in the market when customers pay money to buy a company’s offerings. This reality must never be lost sight of by any CEO who at the end of the day is responsible for the company’s numbers. Without sales, organization momentum disappears, employees lose motivation, investors lose interest and before long, the company implodes.
Getting out of one’s comfort zone and pushing oneself to do sales – meeting customers, refining the sales pitch, facing rejection, understanding customer requirements, dealing with objections, crafting and communicating a value proposition vis-à-vis competition, negotiating and managing the sales and post sales process – is therefore something that a CEO needs to quickly learn.
The history of entrepreneurs and startups is littered with stories of great products and services that no one bought. Great products and services are created by interacting and engaging with a market and customers. Here’s a cliché regarding sales that’s worth repeating and internalizing by all CEOs. Richard Motley, who as President and publisher of Parade magazine (America’s most widely read magazine with over 32million readers) from 1946 to 1978 took circulation from 2 million to 19million during his tenure and was known for his sales prowess, had this to say “Nothing happens until somebody sells something”.